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RIGHTS: This Cup of Woes Is Full

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jun 21 2007 (IPS) - Each time European Union officials take a coffee break, there is a reasonable chance that the contents of their cup will have originated from a plantation where young children have to undertake gruelling work.

Agriculture is the largest economic activity where underage labour is found, the International Labour Organisation stated earlier this month. Some 132 million children in the 5-14 age bracket are in effect enslaved in the cultivation and processing of crops like cereals, coffee, fruit, cocoa, sugar, palm oil, tea, rice, vegetables and tobacco.

The magnitude of the problem notwithstanding, child labour appears to occupy a low position on the list of priorities for the most powerful EU institutions.

India, for example, has the single biggest concentration of child labour in the world. According to the country’s official data, the problem affects 13 million children, though unofficial estimates suggest the real figure could be 60-100 million.

The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, is proposing to give 260 million euros (348 million dollars) in aid to India between this year and 2010. Yet its strategy paper for spending such aid does not commit it to any specific programmes on child labour.

“The strategy paper is very insufficient,” Gerard Oonk from the India Committee of the Netherlands told IPS. “The EU is a big funder of education in India, yet it doesn’t mention child labour in the crucial context of funding education. It also doesn’t mention that child labour should be an important part of the EU’s human rights dialogue with India.”

A recent critique from the European Parliament’s development committee protested, too, that child labour has been “hardly mentioned” in the Commission’s strategy paper and that it “remains vague on the problem of access to and the quality of education.”

Although the Indian constitution guarantees the right to a basic education for all the nation’s children, landowners are legally allowed to employ children at times when they should be in school. Farms are not covered by an Indian law that came into force in October last year; it proscribes the hiring of children to work in the catering industry and as domestic labourers.

Thanks to its rapid economic growth, India’s neighbour China has become the focus of attention for an increasing number of civil servants and lobbyists in Brussels.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) argues that officials must not only examine the volume of trade between the two countries but the conditions under which goods are produced.

It released a report Jun. 11, documenting how children as young as 12 have been working 15 hours a day in a number of companies based in China and supplying goods under licence for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Tim Noonan, ITUC’s campaigns director, said it is “extremely important” that the 27-government EU calls on the International Olympic Committee to “clean up the supply chain” for the games.

He is also exhorting the Union to pay greater heed to child labour and to workers’ rights during its deliberations with the Beijing authorities. Since 1995, the EU and China have been holding a formal dialogue twice a year on human rights issues.

“One of the major problems in China is that there is no freedom of association,” Noonan added. “Where you have freedom of association for adults, wages tend to be better for adults, so it is far less likely to have children falling out of the education system. And where you have genuine trade unions, you have a very strong guarantee that there won’t be an abuse of children through labour.

“No dialogue with China on questions of human rights and trade union rights is easy. But we think it is very important that the EU persists with genuine efforts to help make the Chinese authorities understand that they are part of the global economy and part of the global labour market and that fundamental rights need to be respected.”

EU policy makers have been examining for the past few years how they can prevent European firms active in the wider world from contributing to the abuse of children. The India Committee of the Netherlands published a study earlier this month detailing how the German biotechnology and drugs firm Bayer has not yet dealt with child labour in its sourcing of seeds for cotton in some Indian states.

As part of its general approach to the concept of corporate social responsibility, European industry has been arguing that it favours adherence to a voluntary code, rather than to binding legislation.

In March, however, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) approved a resolution arguing that codes of conduct cannot be a substitute for international regulation. The assembly called on the Commission and EU governments to devise legal measures for monitoring multinational companies.

British MEP Richard Howitt, the author of that resolution, said he is involved in discussions with EU officials on the surrounding issues, including child labour, and is due to meet Günter Verheugen, the European commissioner for industry, in the near future.

“They are listening and talking to Parliament but we have a long way to go,” Howitt told IPS. “At the moment, they are talking rather than acting.”

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